Voluntary Participation Through Games
Positive Stressors, or Eustress
Previously, we discussed the importance of authorial intent, and next the stressors associated with technology and social interaction. But the stress of social interaction does not always have to exist within a negative frame. Games, as opposed to necessary requirements, offer a way to reframe stress as a positive result of voluntary participation. Voluntary tasks are often implemented to invite interaction between producers and consumers of content. One example is symphonies using smart-phones and Twitter to ask for encore votes during a show. The technology is already in place in an audience member’s pocket, and so there is a small barrier to entry for interaction, but there is also a social aspect that makes it more appealing. It would be much more stressful to be the one member of the audience who was selected to choose an encore performance and hope that everyone else enjoyed it too.
Risk Versus Reward
How People Make Decisions
A desire to minimize risk and maximize reward frequently informs a person’s decision-making process, as demonstrated by a variety of hypotheses in the areas of game theory and economics. Among the first of these was Daniel Bernoulli’s expected utility hypothesis, first formalized in the 18th century, which has since been refined by other economists into theories such as decision theory and prospect theory. These theories describe why players in game environments, where probable outcomes are known, engage in “safe” behaviors that will still lead to perceived rewarding outcomes. The gaming terms “asynchronous play” and “ambient sociability” illustrate this concept. Asynchronous games are those such as Words with Friends, which do not require players to be present at the same time when playing a game, as they take their turns whenever they want. Ambient sociability does not even require that players participate in a game together at all, only that other players share the same virtual space in an online game world, completing similar tasks within that space. Both of these concepts give players in a game almost complete social control over how, when, and where to play a game, minimizing any potential stress or fear of failure.
However, a complete removal of the potential for failure or dynamic, unexpected possibilities is not attractive, and studies have demonstrated risk taking in recreational and social domains as attractive qualities in potential mates. Again, social aspects with real conscious entities must be present, and this is why social networking websites frequently become more popular than those which offer the same service without interaction. Delicious, a website that insisted on a social aspect to its platform of bookmarking content, is one example of this, and its mandated social component is why it bested Backflip in user adoption.
Abusing Online Space
Fake Celebrities, Trolling, and Other Breaches of Netiquette
But understanding the need for social aspects of online environments does present the possibility of abuse of that insight. From spam to trolling, the Internet is full of mediated relationships that are the result of malicious intent, and some of them are not as obviously fabricated as an e-mail with the subject line “I love you," which many may remember as the tactic of the computer worm ILOVEYOU. This worm first appeared in May 2000, eventually overloading important computer networks including the Pentagon.
Falsely perceived relationships frequently take the form of fake or proxy Twitter and YouTube accounts that are advertised as belonging to real people. An audience member for these false representations of self is then unknowingly transported into a narrative frame while perceiving that person’s character representation as a realistic self-presentation.
Celebrities frequently use technologically-mediated relationships to advertise a hyper-realized version of themselves to their fans. With the rise of new technologies, it has been easier for celebrities to manufacture this interaction between themselves and their fans, as is the case when Britney Spears had other people post on her Twitter account for her. In the simplest consideration, advances in communication technology allow for a perceived closing of the gap between celebrity and fan, with greater possibilities for interaction between the two. You can tweet at just about any celebrity imaginable. However, it might not be a direct connection. Just like science-fiction author Robert Heinlein described in Stranger in a Strange Land, flacks are hired to create greater barriers between artist and consumer, even when technology would see those barriers topple. The difference now is that flacks can portray the celebrity in a way that convinces the audience that it is interacting with the actual celebrity. However, many audience members do understand the inherent likelihood that they are not interacting with actual celebrities in such scenarios.
Parasocial Relationships With Celebrities and Advertising Spokespersons
Trusting People You Only Know From TV
Although technology now provides the potential for interaction with celebrities, parasocial relationships have historically been one-sided. For example, fans develop significant parasocial relationships with sports figures, internalizing an athlete’s triumph as personal triumphs, despite doing nothing tangible to contribute to an athlete’s victory. Fans are also more personally affected by tragedies that happen to celebrities, such as deaths of notable figures like Dale Earnhardt.
Entertainment celebrities, particularly actors, present themselves as characters other than they truly are as a requirement of their job. This is generally understood by the audience, even if fans sometimes conflate character and reality in their mediated understanding of a celebrity’s personality. However, celebrities or other notable figures who are not famous for portraying different characters face the possibility of even deeper parasocial bonds being formed on the part of the audience, since their self-presentation to an audience is ostensibly a realistic and consistent one. This is the case with TV news reporters, who serve for many viewers as trusted friends that impart the news of the day with a perceived motivation of informing and protecting the audience. Perhaps the most well-known example of this type of parasocial bond from the 20th century is Walter Cronkite, who viewers “expected to be there when I turn on the news. We’ve been through a lot together, Walter and me.”
This level of intense trust in someone that is known only through media creates a parasocial relationship that is primed for economic manipulation of the audience, otherwise known as advertising. Audience members are more likely to be persuaded to purchase something if asked to do so by a prestigious and respected figure in an advertisement, even if that celebrity is not an expert in the area. The celebrity testimonial is an advertising staple, from comedian Jerry Seinfeld endorsing American Express to actor Dennis Haysbert serving as a corporate spokesperson for Allstate Insurance. And while such spokesmen are well-paid for their time, these advertisements allow corporations to reframe aspects of personality and likeness as intellectual property, and companies end up owning the copyrights for how a celebrity appears in the media.
Parasocial Relationships' One-Sided Nature
Some Consumers Are Not Satisfied
So now we see why it is that celebrities are frequently trusted sources of information for a service or product, even if they are not figures of authority on the subject. However, there are people who are not satisfied by the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships. Some people are willing to pay for the privilege of two-sided, dynamic social interaction when it comes to engaging with the economy, and that is the subject of my next article on parasocial relationships. Would you like to know more?